A classic approach would have been to study pictures and texts and write formulaic essays about the specific contributions the culture made to our lives today. That’s how most of us were taught about ancient civilizations and unless we had a particular interest in the subject, most of us don’t remember much of what we learned.
But Bri took a different approach. She recognized the disconnect between the study of a culture from 5000 years ago and the lives of her students today and she set to work finding a way to bridge that giant chasm of relevance. It’s best to explain what happened next in Bri’s own voice:
“In order to create student buy-in and interest, and to make the curriculum interesting and relevant to the students, we decided to teach the civilization through the lens of the Iraq war. When the unit started, not one of the students in my class knew that we had waged war on a country that sat on top of the world's first ‘civilization.’ We showed videos of the looting of the Baghdad museum during the US invasion in 2003, and showed and read some of the news coverage that followed the invasion.
The kids were full of questions and confusion following this introduction, so we spent the rest of the unit looking at issues of looting, fairness, and cultural ownership. We visited the Freer Gallery and the Natural History museum, and participated in exciting panels led by art historians, curators, relief workers, and international development professionals.
We read Mesopotamia's ancient myths (Gilgamesh and Lugalbanda), and studied famous pieces of art and artifacts from the Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. To show their understanding of the conflict, my students wrote double-voiced poems about the looting. After a 5-week introductory unit on poetry, they demonstrated their writing skills and content knowledge by choosing two voices: looters and guards, ancient artists and modern curators, Iraqi soldiers and American soldiers, etc, and wrote a double voiced poem from the perspective of these two voices.
Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, is Iraqi and has been incredibly supportive of this project since we first met to discuss our ideas. We created a partnership with Busboys and Poets so that the students could participate in a true, authentic poetry reading in that venue.
Of my 52 7th and 8th graders, every single student wrote and published a poem for two voices. Each was invited to attend the poetry reading, but none was required to go. They were not even offered extra credit! Voluntarily, 41 of my students came to present their work. It was quite a site to look over my shoulder as I walked down 16th Street and see a sea of 12-year-olds behind me. I asked, "Whoa- what are you guys doing?" I thought only a handful would come. And they looked at me like I had lost my mind. "We're coming to read our poetry!" It was truly moving.
This event was a testament to what kids can do when you set high expectations and truly believe that they will rise to the occasion. When we first began the poetry unit, many students claimed they couldn't write poetry, they thought poetry had to rhyme, and they would never read their work in front of an audience. But the beautiful thing about poetry is that, if introduced properly and in the right context, it can provide an opportunity for every student to be successful. Some students' success looked like weaving a metaphor throughout both voices. For others, simply learning to use alliteration, and finding a friend in the thesaurus, was a huge success.
By the end of this unit, every student was proud of something they had accomplished. The fact that so many showed up to read their work is a testament to how confident and proud they were.”
Bri gives credit to her instructors at Inspired Teaching for some of the strategies she used in teaching this unit, but Dr. Julie Sweetland, who is one of those instructors, says, “Bri has done an amazing job of planning rich, relevant curriculum for her 7th and 8th grade students – as a result, a topic that might otherwise be found dry and irrelevant to students has been highly engaging and has stimulated students' intellectual curiosity.”
Bri’s students are now studying Ancient Egypt through the question of whether the British Museum should return the Rosetta Stone to its native land. “This is a particularly exciting unit, because students are thinking seriously about language and writing, why we write the way we do, how we take meaning from images, and why our brains interpret symbols the way they do,” she explains.
Perhaps the best testament to what’s taking place in this dynamic classroom is the pride Bri’s students are developing in their own abilities and work. The day after the poetry reading one of her students spontaneously asked if they could take a moment to give each other “shout outs” and “acknowledgements” for what they had accomplished the night before.